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What is Jazz?





X. Ragtime

A. Piano Style


Ragtime is primarily a solo piano style and was the immediate precursor to jazz.

  1. It originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
  2. It consists of each hand doing something different:
    1. The left hand plays a steady, almost march-like succession of alternating bass notes and chords in a steady "oom-pah, oom-pah, oom-pah, oom-pah" fashion.

    2. The right hand plays syncopated melodies in a "ragged" fashion (hence the name "ragtime").
  3. Ragtime is primarily an African American invention and was a source of pride to African American composers, musicians, and listeners.
  4. One of ragtime’s inventors and most important pianists and composers was Scott Joplin.
  5. Since ragtime was conceived and developed before records were invented, it was "recorded" on piano rolls.
    1. Piano rolls were long rolls of thick paper that had holes (i.e., perforations) punched in them. When spun through a special type of mechanical piano (called a "player piano"), the instrument would mechanically play the notes indicated by the perforations; different songs had different patterns of perforations.
    2. By someone simply pumping two foot pedals back and forth at the bottom of the piano, the piano roll would spin through a mechanism that would mechanically press down the appropriate piano keys, making it play the song. The faster you pumped the pedals, the faster the tempo would be.
  6. Ragtime really isn't jazz since it rarely includes improvisation. However, it was the immediate precursor of jazz.
    1. Bands tried to imitate the ragtime style.
    2. They added improvisation and, thus, jazz was born.
  7. For an excellent example of ragtime, listen to Scott Joplin’s "Maple Leaf Rag" on the Instrumental History of Jazz and/or "The Entertainer" by clicking below. 

Audio Snippets

speakerspacer The Entertainer - John Arpin

B. Cultural Implications of Ragtime


  1. Ragtime represents musics from both Europe and Africa.
    1. The piano is a European instrument.
    2. The left hand (steady march-like rhythm) was derived from European classical music and marches.
    3. The chord progressions were rooted in European classical music.
    4. Ragtime uses standard European notation (all the music was written).
    5. The right hand's syncopated, “ragged” melodies, derived from complex polyrhythms (several different rhythms played simultaneously), have their roots in African music.
  2. Ragtime was enjoyed by both European and African Americans as it reflected the full gamut from conservative to liberal attitudes.
    1. Conservative example: ragtime was performed on the piano, a white middle class symbol of nostalgia and status.
    2. Liberal example: ragtime’s syncopations reflected the exciting pace of modern industrial life.
  3. Listen once again to Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” and/or “The Entertainer” and see if you can “hear” these cultural implications in the music.  

Video Clips

videospacer Ethan Uslan - Bach's Minuet in G (Ragtime Version)
videospacer Minuet in G - Bach
videospacer Scott Joplin - Maple Leaf Rag perfomed by Dario Ronchi
videospacer Scott Joplin - The Entertainer performed by Paul Barton
the Herbie Hancock institute of jazz
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